$557K grant to boost Macon-Bibb 2020 election outreach


Grant Blankenship - GPB

Voters wait in line at the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections during early voting in the 2020 Presidential Election.

More than a half-million dollars is headed to the coffers of the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections to help run this year’s elections.

The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life has awarded more than $557,000 to assist with planning and operating safe and secure elections.

The board received the grant Sept. 30 and the Macon-Bibb County Commission voted to accept the money and terms of the agreement Tuesday night.

There are no matching local funds required for the grant.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas commended the Chicago-based organization that receives funding from Google, Facebook, the Knight Foundation and others, according to its website.

“This amount of money makes a tremendous statement because it says there is funding available for boards of education who want to do something to make sure their citizens get out the vote,” Lucas said. “There are organizations now that are working to decrease the impact of voter suppression which is happening all over the country and in Georgia, as well.”

The money must be spent by the end of 2020, but cannot fund any previously budgeted items.

“Anything that was funded has to remain funded,” Senior Assistant County Attorney Michael McNeill explained. “This would be an additional amount of money.”

Under the contract, funds can be used to purchase ballot drop boxes, pay for election department real estate costs or money needed for satellite offices, polling place rental and cleaning expenses, temporary staffing, supplies needed for absentee ballots or equipment and supplies for mail-in voting. The money can also be used for personal protective equipment or PPE for staff, poll workers or voters. It can be spent to recruit workers, train them and provide hazard pay for those exposed to the risk of COVID-19 from the public.

Board of Elections Democrat representative Cassandra Powell said she first learned of the grant from her colleagues in Atlanta and worked with fellow board member Henry Ficklin to complete the application.

Powell has been advocating for hazard pay for elections workers, hiring custodians to maintain cleanliness at the polls and precinct bathrooms, and purchasing PPE for the workers.

“A lot of people who worked the polls before, they don’t want to do it because of the COVID,” Powell said. “Macon people need to know that we have all this money coming in for their safety.”

Powell believes the extra hazard pay would incentivize more people to step forward to work the polls.

The elections board is still trying to identify how the money will be spent.

The county already authorized more than a quarter-million dollars in a supplemental budget appropriation in September to cover additional election expenses.

The elections board also had a supplemental appropriation of $377,000 in spring, but left $350,000 on the table when the Fiscal Year ended June 30.

“I was so ticked off about that,” Powell said. “Anybody knows you use it or lose it.”

Anything already budgeted under those allocations cannot be covered by the grant, but unbudgeted items can be covered retroactively to June 15.

Powell is frustrated about missed opportunities.

“We knew this election was coming and we could have done started this in May when the grants were out there,” she said.

Last month, the county added additional early voting sites at the Elaine Lucas Senior Center in Carolyn Crayton Park and at Theron Ussery Recreation Center off Wimbish Road and authorized an additional absentee ballot drop box near the courthouse on Mulberry Street.

“We’ve got three (early) voting places and we still have got lines. That makes no sense,” Powell said. “We’ve got to stay busy. We’ve got to stay vigilant until we get enough early voting sites and right now we don’t have enough.”

Powell favors additional early voting sites on the southside and in northwest Bibb County, although it’s unclear whether there is enough time to set up operations and hire additional staff.

Julie Moore, assistant to the county manager for budget and strategic planning, told commissioners that elections supervisor Jeanetta Watson has ideas on how the money will be spent, but did not share anything concrete with commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting.

“(Watson’s) been very busy as you can imagine,” Moore said.

As of Tuesday evening, more than 13,000 people had already voted at the advanced voting precincts.

The elections board postponed its monthly meeting from Oct. 15 to Thursday at 4 p.m.

The meeting will be conducted via teleconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]